Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Tim Pat Coogan's "The Famine Plot": Book Review

The subtitle plays into conspiracy theory, a melodramatic touch calculated to attract readers to what's a familiar saga for many who know Irish history. So, how justified is "England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy" by "Ireland's best-known historian" according to his byline? I read this soon after John Kelly's "The Graves Are Walking" which places the "Great Hunger" of the late 1840s in contexts of Europe, North America, as well as Britain regarding its similarities and differences to other famines. Kelly expands the story to show how emigration, privation, and policy combined to bring a near-worst-case scenario to millions of Irish.

Tim Pat Coogan takes the side of the native against the imperialist. His preface compares the Famine with today's austerity imposed upon the Irish Republic, and notes the personal afflictions endured by his fellow citizens--at least where the Irish again have to depend on charity from abroad. Coogan advances the genocidal definition of what happened in the mid-19th century, and he shows in the first chapter about the conditions of his ancestors how his paternal townlands in Co Kilkenny reveal in the archived "Great Book" the appeals of the tenants to their absentee landlord. Throughout, I was impressed by how Coogan navigates between the big explanation and the local detail garnered from such records and scholarship. He has an eye for the detail, such as a Mayo priest's reticent acknowledgement of "a very interesting woman" given that sexual matters were not discussed.

The second main chapter looks at the background, full of "multilayered demonology" as faction fighting, sectarian rivalry, and the repression after the 1798 rebellion struck fear deeper in the minds of the natives. Poor law relief and the Victorian ameliorative attempts to fix what was wrong with the Irish according to the English show in chapter three the responses habitual and experimented by the British Crown to handle what it feared in Malthusian terms as overpopulation and as mass emigration (to England). Relief was seen as helping the poor to survive and so as to procreate even more peasants.

Coogan turns from the masterminds to the "chief actors in the drama. There were, of course, millions of bit players but their lines were not listened to and echoed only in graveyards." Daniel O'Connell, Sir Robert Peel, Sir Charles Trevelyan, Lord John Russell, Disraeli: well-known names who sought to solve the predicament as the potato crop failed. Tory and Whig debated, the Corn Law ironically passed even as another Coercion Bill was implemented for Ireland. Most MPs did not want to spend money on the ungrateful Irish peasants, the subterfuge of party politics aside.

How much money would be spent depended on grain sent over. Indian corn (hominy grits) was notoriously hard to digest. Crops kept failing, workhouses and public works projects meant to keep the poor fed by having them build roads to nowhere met with predictable despair by the natives. As chapters five with evictions and six with work schemes demonstrate, such conditions exacerbated the deteriorating state of millions in the latter part of the '40s. Peel and Trevelyan among others under Queen Victoria's direction attempted to assist the Irish while keeping down costs, and the corrupt and mismanaged whole as Coogan sums up "was a microcosm" of how the island was governed under the colonial power of the 19th century.

When these schemes ran aground, the workhouses (chapter eight) left an awful legacy in the Irish psyche and its landscape. As Coogan relates, in one of his typical asides bringing in current affairs, even in the past decade the reluctance or refusal of some political entities to commemorate the Famine shows the "{s}ensitivity regarding Anglo-Irish relationships." He pays attention to the plight of the young as well as old housed in appalling conditions, and reminds us of the inhumanity that marked many who survived to emigrate or return to poverty, perhaps shunned by neighbors now as unclean after their release from "the last places of resort" intended "for the destitute only."

The Quakers to their credit helped relieve with food and care, but sectarian rivalries poisoned Protestant efforts derided by Catholics as proselytizing. Chapter Nine documents the battle as Vincentian priests countered with parish missions the attempts of other Christians to establish rival denominations to overturn "Romanism" under the guise of a hidden agenda. This intricate feuding, of course, helped connect Catholicism with nationalism even more deeply, as converts from the rosary to the Bible, so to speak, were ostracized in the small towns and communities where most Irish Catholics survived.

Who paid for Irish poverty? The peasants, via the taxes due to landlords who had to fund by property the relief efforts? Or, the workhouses, where no "outdoor relief" outside their walls was permitted? This contention in chapter ten sets up a Poor Law Extension Act. Landlords understandably if not always fairly (some did help and tried to do what they could) were targeted by the natives as blameworthy for the awful conditions of the past few years. Coogan tips more blame to the Crown.

Divine Providence, some leaders argued, coupled with a disdain for the improvident, papist, and brutal Irish peasantry, meted a just punishment on behalf of Protestant Britain. Laissez-faire policies met another rebellion, attempted in 1848 by the Young Ireland movement, and in this year of change and threat over much of the Western world, it failed. "English benevolence" was at a low point.

By 1848, after hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions sought to escape. The landlords under the Poor Law had been charged with increased rates to care for their destitute tenants. So, landlords, emboldened by the Crown's own advice via the Whigs, encouraged emigration. Unrest grew, desperation deepened. Soon, Liverpool, Canada and the U.S. found their ports overloaded with the starving, the sick, the dying, and the dead. Chapter Eleven dips into the highlights of this dramatic event. It's sketchier than other sections as it's such a large topic, but it provides an overview for those new to this.

As a journalist, Coogan's well placed to judge publicity. Chapter Twelve takes on "The PR of Famine." Akin to the stage Irishmen always willing to be hired to grace a play in the West End, Coogan notes how the Irish contributed to their own stereotyping as yahoos and gorillas in the pages of "Punch." How the Whigs managed to control the spin on the Famine relief and keeping the Irish in their role as designated simians and as grateful servants of the Queen (depending on the article) reminds readers of the ease with which the press has manipulated public opinion on Irish affairs for a long time. Coogan in a rambling but justifiable aside looks at how historical revisionists, wishing to accommodate in the 1990s a Britain in the wake of the peace process not to be offended, also colluded in this enterprise as "a certain colonial cringe."

Finally, too brief an epilogue directs the reader to the aftermath. Land reform and more revolt followed, and emigration accelerated. Psychologically, "learned helplessness" may have worsened the prevalence of not only delayed marriages but mental illness and schizophrenia attributed to rural Ireland with its high rates of bachelors and spinsters. (I note that this topic is contested in academia and needs more context than the penultimate paragraph in the advance copy reviewed.) This study, while favoring a top-down approach as it looks at policy from the London perspective, balances it when the record exists by listening to the bit players. It's a helpful short overview of a complicated and still debated theme.

Appendices show some documents from the Crown. The photos in the final version to come were not present, although an index would be advisable. Endnotes show the sources drawn upon but no separate works cited. It remains, as often with Coogan's works, a slightly idiosyncratic approach as he likes to step into the proceedings and as this moves them now and then forward 170 or so years, this can be quirky. However, this also shows the relevance of the strands and threads he pursues, if more loosely than a conventional historical survey. All in all, to nearly cite a cliche, those not killed off by the potato blight and its impacts turned out stronger as a nation, in Coogan's conclusion. (Amazon US 8-28-12 and The Pensive Quill 3-8-13.)

No comments: